“The Walking Dead” debuted tonight. I offered a pre-season review on Friday, and now I have specific thoughts on the pilot episode, coming up just as soon as I respect the weapon…
“Wake up.” -Rick
In the pre-season review, I expressed some concerns about the later episodes and my lack of affection for the source material (zombies in general and Robert Kirkman’s comic in particular). But those reservations can’t take away how fantastic I found the pilot to be, as Frank Darabont gave us a scary, mournful, haunting look at the nightmare that is the zombie apocalypse.
What I like so much about the pilot is the stillness and simplicity of it. Rick wakes up to a wrecked world, but in his small Kentucky town, there are more corpses than walkers. Until he makes it to Atlanta at the pilot’s end, he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time running and hiding. There’s time to consider what’s happened, and what to do, and what aspects of pre-zombie life Rick and his new friends Morgan and Duane want to hold onto. (Do good manners still matter if you’re very likely to turn into a drooling, shuffling monster any day now?) There’s even time for Rick to pause on his journey to Atlanta to put the legless zombie woman out of her misery.
As the title suggests, “Days Gone Bye” is about loss. The world Rick knew is gone. His wife and son might be as well, though he doesn’t believe so – and we learn(*) that he’s right. Morgan has lost his wife, Duane his mother – and the worst part of all is that she’s gone in spirit but not body, and that body turns up every night to haunt them both. The thing about zombie stories is that they’re relentless, and here Darabont (leaning very heavily on Kirkman and Tony Moore’s work in the early comic issues) showed that they can be that way while also being quiet and slow
(*) One of the few missteps I think Darabont made was the order of the transition from Rick’s partner kissing his wife at the makeshift camp to Rick looking at their photo in the car. I think the stomach punch works better if we’ve just seen the picture before we see the camp, rather than after.
Lots of great, dark imagery in this one (again, much of it from the comic), whether Rick coming upon the “God forgive us” house or the image of Rick alone on horseback traveling down a half-empty, half-wrecked highway(**) on the way into Atlanta. And while I love the work of composer Bear McCreary, I’m pleased that he and/or Darabont decided to keep the use of score to a minimum, as it makes the world Rick wakes up to seem all the eerier. (This early on, background music would just be a reminder that we’re watching yet another zombie movie.)
(**) Though shouldn’t the fact that all the abandoned cars were on their way out of town have warned him to maybe not go in there?
Things get busier once Rick gets to Atlanta and finds himself trapped inside a tank in the middle of a zombie block party, and I found myself missing the stillness of the earlier sequences. But this is the world of the show, and in a way, Rick’s time in Kentucky is a respite – a chance to catch his breath, and heal, and come to grips with what happened while he was asleep, and brace himself for his long and dangerous journey towards the family he hopes is out there.
Now things get messy, fast. And your mileage may vary on which mode works better for the show.
Some other thoughts:
• The main title sequence had a tough act to follow in the terrific fan-made credit sequence by Daniel Kanemoto, who animated panels from the comic and scored it to “Fresh Blood” by Eels, and unfortunately it couldn’t match it. On its own, it’s fine, and I like the McCreary score over it; I just think what Kanemoto did is cooler.
• Another small misstep: I thought the fakeout under the tank, where it looks like Rick is about to blow his brains out, when really he’s just climbing into the hatch in the tank’s underbelly, was a little cheap and unnecessary. (And if the idea was that Rick really was thinking of doing it until he realized he had an avenue of escape, that didn’t come across very well.)
• Damn, Lennie James was good as Morgan, wasn’t he? I don’t know that he blew Andrew Lincoln off the screen as much as Fienberg suggested on our podcast, but that was a crucial role – Morgan has to convey the sense of the world’s loss to Rick, and the audience – and James nailed it. Neither man (nor Jon Bernthal or the rest) can do a particularly convincing Southern accent, unfortunately, but what can you do?
• The song as the camera pulled away from the tank stalemate: “Space Junk by Wang Chung, of all things.
Finally, a note on comics vs. TV, spoilers, etc.: while I’m sure many of you have read the comics, just as many (if not more) haven’t, we’re going to do our best to treat the TV show as its own entity, in the same way Darabont, Hurd and company are doing. I may mention on occasion that the show has deviated from the comic in some way, but it’ll always be brief and not the focus of a review. If the comic readers want to discuss it further in the comments, feel free, but only on the condition that you not reveal anything about what happened later in the story.
So, for example, if you were to say “I find this new character’s presence unnecessary” or “I like how the show put a twist on the this story went in the comic,” or anything else that doesn’t betray knowledge past the present tense for the TV characters, that would be fine. But saying, “I don’t like what happened in this episode because it’s going to prevent (Plot Point From Year Three of the Comic)” or “I’m getting impatient waiting for Character X to turn up” is not okay.
Got that? Should be easy, but sometimes it winds up getting messy.
With that in mind, what did everybody else think?